Family Camping

Submitted into Contest #143 in response to: Set your story in the woods or on a campground. ... view prompt

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Fiction Contemporary

Family Camping

This was a family event. Heading into the forest, woods or as us Australians like to say. Bush, not the type of bush a surfer keeps in his groin. Unless he or she shaves it off. Another story that I learned in primary school was about Sir John Forest, a dignitary who never wanted Western Australia to join the Commonwealth.

As we set off again, wind stiffened sending an armada of clouds scuttling across the sun. Cooler now, and I am glad of my red bobble hat. Angry gusts rustle along the shore, intensifying the briny, slightly sweet smell of decaying seaweed. Only just possible to discern the warning cries of gulls that soar and wheedle overhead.  

Cairn, I recently learned this word. A heap of rocks. Trail marker. Monument to those gone before us. On this trail, cairns sit like weights to keep open ground from blowing away. I add a stone the size of a bird’s egg to a knee-high pile at a fork. Homage to impermanence. A bird, which I cannot see screams at the loosening rock. Toward a lake always east of the peak, am I mistaking directions, feels like east to me? Light spectrum, rainbow similar is spanning scree and sun. The further I walk, the more a stone is no longer stone. Perhaps I meant to light a candle of remembrance or place a bean seed out to dry. Perhaps my pebble is shame that will draw lightning and combust. A stone to mark years of making things with my family.

We turn inland in search of shelter. I eye the water of a shallow lake nervously. For my father, submersion in cold water is vital for development of character and moral fiber. He regularly offers us “the option or a compulsory swim”.

Today, however he doesn’t insist. Perhaps his earlier dip has temporarily cooled his passion. I am enormously relieved. There is such a thing as too much moral fiber.

Instead, we continue to pick our way across the pathless interior of the island. This requires great concentration, innocent-looking clumps of vegetation conceal deep mud blotches. Best tactics are as follows: If there is a rock available, step on the rock, if not, choose whatever mud looks least promising. There is a neat inverse relationship between how solid a piece of dirt appears and its actual foot worthiness.

A cry from my sister demonstrates that she has not yet learnt this lesson. My father heads across to help her extract her leg from the vice-like suction of the black mud. This must be done with great care. The uninitiated will tend to point their toe to minimize resistance. To do so is fatal. Your foot will part company with your boot, which will vanish forever with a satisfying squelch. A shoe sacrifice to mud gods.

Couldn’t help thinking, is this about finding a grave, perhaps in a remote part of the country. I tried to remain calm as we made our way uphill, through the trees, my parents were walking behind and telling us where to go.

I do not stop, but drift onwards, dancing from rock to root to avoid my sister’s fate. The sun has come out again, and I am warm from the exercise. Pausing to fight with the salt-rusted zip of my jacket, I sense, rather than see, a shadow moving across the group towards me.

“Katie! Samuel!”

I panic and try to get as low to the ground as possible. Magpies, pirates in spring, armed with wicked beaks capable of splitting earlobes, taking a chunk out of heads. Sharp claws, in my mind a cross between a gull and eagle, and a nasty habit of dive bombing anything which strays into their territory. Only protecting fledglings and nests, I am prepared to concede a point to the Magpies. You cannot be said to be Australian, unless you have encountered at least one altercation, and scored a flesh wound from a disgruntled Magpie.

“A stick! Get a stick!” My mother’s voice sounds terrifyingly distant.

Of course. How could I have forgotten? The chink in Magpie’s armor is that their intelligence lags considerably behind their aggression. They always attack the highest point, which means that a prepared walker can simply hold a stick up in the air and walk unharmed through marauding Magpies.

I don’t have stick, however, and this treeless island is unlikely to provide one. There are shrubs, resembling multi-trunked bushes, I want to say like, Mallee root trees, but am not really a botanist. Neither am I an expert on Magpies, just a little curious. Are they Australia wide, if I had my phone, I could look it up? I wonder do they live in the tropical zones. Freedom from electronic devices is another aspect of dad’s insistence to do with moral fiber.

To keep birds away I improvise, pulling off my jacket and whirling it above my head. This is tiring, but it works, the magpie seems content to lay siege to my sleeve as I stumble, exhausted, out of her territory. I expect sympathy. I expect heartfelt relief. But this is not what I get. Each and every member of my family is laughing so hard that tears are rolling down their cheeks. Even Katie looks amused.

Shaken, and offended to my very core, I burst into tears. My father tries to pull me in for a hug, but I push him away. In doing so I stumble straight into a particularly deep, mud hole.

When we reached a granite outcrop, there was a lone tree growing in a crevice. I couldn’t help thinking it might blow down in the wind. My father pointed out an eagle’s nest, large and straggly, added to year after year.

‘It’s in a good position for them,’ he said. ‘They can see all the way to the coast glide on the thermals, pick out their prey, and raise their chicks safely. A bit like we do with you. They mate for life you know.’

‘They’re survivors,’ I said.

An hour, and clean trousers later, I am sung under a blanket, on better ground, at our camp site. The setting sun has turned the sky above me into an artist’s palette of periwinkle, apricot, and crisp blue. A nearby rock conglomeration making a welcoming salute to approaching darkness.

“…the look on his face…just too funny…”

I suspect my parents are talking about me, but the stab of outrage is muted. I am too warm and comfortable to care. I give way to sleep, and dreams of orange-yolk egg, dripping with butter. Salivating expecting this to be waiting for me when I wake.

There is no better noise than the crackle of burning twigs overlaid with the low whistle of water coming to the boil.

The powdered milk in my hot chocolate is not fully dissolved, and the drink contains a generous sprinkling of rust specks from the kettle, and it tastes like heaven. I am using a grubby finger to scoop up lumps of chocolate powder from the bottom of my enameled mug when Katie wanders in from early catches up with us. Her dainty feet – built for speed over short distances are particularly ill suit to this terrain. She collapses right there beside the campfire. Looks reproachfully up at us, before being distracted by the pungent delights of a long dead lizard, we missed as sleeping bags were unrolled.

Then we followed a dry creak line that led inland before curving away down a valley. I could glimpse the ocean in the distance before we plunged down the hillside. Dad telling me not to walk too fast or I would trip over again. I thought about running off into the trees, kicking him, but I knew not to move as quickly or nimbly.

I flop down to join my sister. Ground may appear to be uniform, lifeless and non-descript brown, but from ground level patient viewers are treated to a colorful soap opera woven together from innumerable, interdependent story lines. Trails of various tracks, inter-meshed and unable to locate direction of travel, or maker of said footprints. Not to mention more than our share of human footfalls. Magenta spikes of insectivorous sun dew, poised to take advantage of midges. It is too early for the miniature flowers, which will later cover these sand dunes, mud sludge and various slopes with tiny petals. Only hope is to come here again, after spring has dampened, and grown extra mud. I watch an ant’s progress, his or her final destination proves to be the hulking corpse of a beetle, marooned on its back with its five remaining legs swaying gently in the breeze.

“Where did you get the egg from?” My mother sounds puzzled.

Sure enough, my placid little Buddha of a sister is clasping a gull’s egg tightly in both hands. She chuckles with delight. It turns out she is actually near a nest. A second egg, miraculously unscathed, nestles tightly near her bottom. With her yellow waterproof jacket, she bears more than a passing resemblance to a round, beaming chick. I can’t get images of an alien stealing life forms out of my brain.

In the early evening we returned to the camp site. My mum and dad brought some food to prepare a meal. I thought about grabbing a burning stick from the fire and making a little war dance. But another voice inside my head concluded that was not a good idea.

April 29, 2022 04:45

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2 comments

Andrea Doig
05:24 May 07, 2022

Hello Karen. I enjoyed some of the descriptions and felt like I was in the bush (we call it that too here in SA!) alongside the sweet family. I particularly liked the line about waking up and hearing the crackling twigs while water boiled. Lovely! My favorite character was Dad :) I did notice some grammatical errors and words left out here and there. Also the tense shifted a lot between present and past, so not sure if it’s a memory, or a real time story. Thank you for sharing x

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Chris Morris
18:18 May 03, 2022

I love this line - "The uninitiated will tend to point their toe to minimize resistance. To do so is fatal. Your foot will part company with your boot, which will vanish forever with a satisfying squelch. A shoe sacrifice to mud gods." This made me laugh out loud. A little thing I noticed - your prose shifted from present tense to past tense in some places which distracted me a little from your story. However, I thought you wrote very descriptively and I was able to imagine what was happening because lots of it was so well described.

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